TAMPA, Fla. — On a team for the ages, he is the face.
Steven Stamkos is not only the Lightning’s captain, he’s their conscience. The entire group has been hardened by their scars over the years, and Stamkos has led in that category, too — both physical and mental. The injuries. The doubts. The pain.
The days he didn’t want to get out of bed.
All of those things make nights like these sweeter. The joy unbridled. The pride unparalleled. The Lightning are the Eastern Conference champions for the third straight year, an, unthinkable feat during the salary-cap era. The back-to-back Stanley Cup champions are four wins away from immortality, from dynasty status, because of their collective determination, their sacrifice and their trust in one another.
And the fact they embody the character of their captain.
Stamkos’ two goals were the difference in a 2-1 victory over the Rangers in Game 6 on Saturday night, including his game-winner with seven minutes left. The Lightning are known for not panicking, for responding to adversity, with many players having their moments in this playoff run. But it was fitting that this night belonged to Stamkos, who carried around the Prince of Wales Trophy and led the handshake line as DJ Khaled’s “All I Do Is Win” had fans dancing everywhere from the stands to Thunder Alley.
“There is a lot of weight on his shoulders. He’s got to score, he’s got to lead, he’s got to be the face of the franchise,” coach Jon Cooper said. “At some point, you want the light to shine on him. And it has in so many different ways. But in an elimination game, to not only score first but to answer 21 seconds after they tied it, I’m proud. I’m proud that ‘Stammer’ got this moment.’”
Stamkos was in the penalty box when the Rangers tied the game in the third period, his holding penalty the culprit. But as Stamkos sat there, watching his opponents celebrate a slap shot away, hearing a once-rocking Amalie Arena go stone-cold silent, a weird sense of calm came over him.
Twenty-one seconds later, Stamkos’ wrist shot trickled through Igor Shesterkin, his 40th career playoff goal, and one of the biggest.
“For some reason, I wasn’t as rattled as I usually am in those situations,” Stamkos said. “I think I was just confident in our group that we’d find a way. We deserved to win that game tonight. That was the feeling we had from puck drop to in between intermission. Just keep going. Our will is going to take over.”
For as much as Tampa Bay is loaded with stars, from Andrei Vasilevskiy to Nikita Kucherov to Victor Hedman to Brayden Point, it’s the will that we’ll all remember about this team 20 years from now. The courage to block shots. The guts to rally from a 3-2 series deficit to beat Toronto in the first round. The depth to sweep the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Panthers in the second round (without Point). The moxie to recover after dropping two games in New York and then win four straight. The discipline to follow the “recipe” they’ve sworn by.
Process over outcome.
Work over hope.
Defend until the end.
The Lightning have given up nine goals in their last eight victories, with the Anthony Cirelli-led line smothering the Rangers’ top line and Vasilevskiy shutting the door. Now they face the most explosive offense in hockey in the Colorado Avalanche, with Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final scheduled for Wednesday in Denver.
Who’s betting against these guys? Plus, Cooper said Saturday night that Point is “extremely probable” to play at some point during the series.
“I think it’s just belief in ourselves and belief in the work you put in,” Stamkos said. “But trust is the word. We trust every guy that goes over those boards to do his job. Whether you score a goal or not, it’s the little things you do. It’s the defending. It’s the blocked shots. It’s the sacrifice. It’s not complaining about your role. It’s going out and playing as hard as you can for the guy that sits beside you in the locker room. That’s why this group is so special. We don’t know what’s going to happen here in the next 10 to 14 days. But we know we’re going to give it our all. It’s gotten us this far again. It’s just a special group to be a part of.”
The 11 consecutive series victories are remarkable, a credit to the players, of course. But ownership and management owning a large piece of this, too, having the conviction and patience to stick with this core and coaching staff following the humbling 2019 sweep by Columbus. Stamkos & Co. had made it to the Cup Final in 2015, and Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final in 2016 and 2018, but there were some who were questioning whether this could be the group that could break through. Even Stamko admitteds the night of the Blue Jackets sweep that he believed, but “it’s one thing to say, and another to do.”
“This didn’t happen overnight,” Cooper said. “It takes time. But you have to give credit to Jeff Vinik and Steve Yzerman and Julien BriseBois. They kept the group together, believing in the long term and not just knee-jerk reactions saying, ‘You know what, this has got to blow up,’ because 2019 was an easy one. That was an easy out. But you get knocked around that many times and you’re still going back, you know you’ve got something…
“Maybe Torts was right. Maybe he did create a monster.”
Stamkos has gotten knocked around more times than he can count in his career. He’s been a teenage prodigy, a shooting star, a scoring champion.
He’s also been hurt, and doubted. But every time he suffered a serious injury — from a broken leg to a torn meniscus to a blood clot to multiple core surgeries — he fought his way back to return to an elite level. This year might have been the best year of his career, a “rebirth.” He recorded his first 100-point season, broke Marty St. Louis’ franchise points record and may have surpassed his mentor as the best Lightning player of all time.
This Stamkos was a product of him finally being healthy. He spent all summer training as opposed to rehabbing. He was in as good a place mentally and physically in years. He was a play-driver for the Lightning when they absolutely needed it, especially with Kucherov and Point missing a large chunk of the first half of the season.
And in the playoffs, Stamkos has set the tone. He’s blocking shots, going down the tunnel a couple of times in the Florida series before returning. He’s giving speeches, telling teammates at the second intermission of Game 6 against Toronto that “Tonight is not the night when this ends.” He’s fighting, tossing around Alexis Lafrenière at the end of Game 5.
“He’s been leading the way,” Pat Maroon said. “He’s been banging his body a lot, too, getting his licks in, scoring goals, blocking shots, taking faceoffs when we need them at key times. We try to follow what he’s doing.”
Lightning teammates all followed Stamkos to the postgame ceremony to accept the Prince of Wales Trophy. Superstitions be damned, they were going to touch that thing. Stamkos carried it around afterward, sharing hugs and laughs. There’s a bigger trophy in the sights of Stamkos and his team, hockey’s holy grail, but they’re trying to let it all sink in as to what they’ve accomplished. Let it soak in.
“Growing up in Canada, you always dream about having your name on the Cup,” Cooper said. “To get there the first time was a dream come true. To get there a second time, the next year, was a dream. There’s no way you’re going back. And then to go a third time, that’s unthinkable. The players, I sit back and I’m proud, I’m impressed by them. To watch their growth, watch their pain.”
And watch the light fittingly shine on Stamkos.
(Photo of Steven Stamkos: Nathan Ray Seebeck / USA Today)